Boredom, pain, and purpose

Once, near the beginning of the World Race, I asked my coach Gary Black to help me understand why I was bored (how could I be bored in the middle of something so wild as the Race?). He responded memorably “You are bored because you are boring.”

I had no idea what he meant.

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Boredom was not a new problem for me. In the early part of college, I was bored with school and my social life, so I took to obsessive self-improvement schemes. Later on, I was swept up into Jesus and this new Christian life, and made a bunch of great new friends … but once the novelty wore off, I was still bored. So my favorite pass-time became daydreaming about backpacking trips, and endlessly researching (and buying) outdoor gear. Boredom has been my adversary on a seasonal basis, tenaciously creeping into every new chapter of my life.

I am not special of course. Boredom is endemic in this place. The average male depends for his passion on the yearly rhythm of football or basketball seasons, or he plays a never-ending supply of shiny new computer games. The average woman probably endlessly shops for new clothes or accessories, pokes around on pinterest, or works on improving her body (or something).

Granted, these affinities are complex, and not intrinsically bad, and there’s much more to say about all that. But I’m not headed there today — instead I simply contend that we mostly use these pass-times to distract ourselves from the reality that we are bored. That is — if we were to remove these stimuli, we would soon start crying from the pangs of withdrawal, and wonder what to do with ourselves. Face it, okay? You are probably bored.

So the question is: why are we bored?

For today I propose two answers:

1)  Pain

There is too little pain in our lives. We live in a culture that seeks comfort, and we sure do have a lot of it. All this comfort leads to … well, it leads to comfort, and not much else. I’ll let some other writers do the convincing here:

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. — Helen Keller

In America we live in a culture that avoids conflict but we do so to our own detriment. Conflict fills a story with meaning and beauty. Not only this, but conflict gives value to that which we are trying to attain. And conflict is the only way a character actually changes. There is no character development without conflict. So when we choose our ambitions, they should be difficult and we should anticipate and even welcome conflict. — Donald Miller

What really makes us come alive? Is it money? Success? Fame? No, it’s none of those. It’s something better, something scarier. Pain: that’s how we begin to experience life. Struggle, strife, hardship. These are the ingredients for a life well lived (told you that you wouldn’t like it). — Jeff Goins

You get my point here. By avoiding suffering in our culture, we have basically succeeded in anesthetizing (euthanizing?) our hearts and our passions. And so … we are bored. Bored out of our minds.

Okay, the critical reader would now ask me: “Are you saying we should seek out pain just for pain’s sake?” No, that’s not what I’m saying, although a lot of people have gone ahead with that approach, more or less. They would be the adventurers, the thrill seekers — people who are addicted to risk, danger, and adrenaline. They’re clearly onto something, don’t get me wrong. But I think something is still missing.

I said there were two answers, here’s the second:

2) Purpose

What’s also missing is a story that’s worth fighting for. The ultimate goal of thrill-seeking is … just thrills, really. The story extends no further than the stimulation of the self. We can do better.

Our culture has a variety of stories that you can choose from. You can work hard and earn a nice lifestyle by the time you’re 50 or so. You can innovate something and change an industry and become famous. You can donate your time or energy to fight poverty, promote civil rights, or serve the public good — or whatever. You can love your children well, and see them grow into brilliant people. Etc.

I think all these stories are at least okay, or some pretty good. But notice that the title of this section is not story, it’s purpose. I think our lives lack purpose, even though the stories I listed above are pretty good. Alert: I’m about to go all Christian on you.

Jesus brings purpose, because he brings truth. He unifies cosmology, history, identity, methodology, causality, teleology, and many other jargon words of mostly Greek origin.

What I’m saying is that in Jesus there is a bigger story, a meta-story perhaps, which defines all the useful players in this epic — you, me, our time alive here, the course of the world, and the reasons for it all. This is the stuff that gives actual meaning and purpose for any of the stories I listed above. I think that is not a small distinction.

Warning: this is not an advertisement for Jesus. He is not a box set that will bring purpose to your life for a low price of $29.95. His price tag is actually $Everything, and btw he is not for sale.

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Anyway. The experience of the World Race forced me through weeks and months of discomfort and pain, and seeing a world that was a lot more interesting and textured than I imagined. I began to see that pain didn’t hurt, or rather that it wasn’t worth fearing, and that was a game-changer.

Moreover, I began to believe that my identity was actually couched in Jesus, and that the other things he said and did were more true than I ever thought possible, and more relevant to this hurting world than I ever believed. With my eyes opened and some truths about myself and the world secured, my heart slowly began to wake up.

I’m still working on it, granted. I still get bored. But these days, I like to think I am much less boring than I used to be. I think I finally get what Gary meant.

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